The International Politics of Bluefin Tuna

NOAA’s decision not to list bluefin tuna as endangered may not be popular, says Michael Conathan. But it was the right move.

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Bluefin tuna are shown inside Maricultura's tuna pens near Ensenada, Mexico. (AP/Chris Park)
Bluefin tuna are shown inside Maricultura's tuna pens near Ensenada, Mexico. (AP/Chris Park)

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, drew ire from some environmental groups when it announced last week that the Atlantic bluefin tuna does not warrant a listing under the Endangered Species Act despite widespread decline the species over the past several decades. Despite its unpopularity, this is the correct decision from both a legal and a conservation standpoint.

The bluefin tuna is one of the most astounding creatures on the planet. Marine biologists frequently refer to sharks as perfect eating machines. If so, then the bluefin is a perfect swimming machine. Each fish is a tube of pure muscle that has evolved biological adaptations allowing it to swim faster, deeper, and farther than virtually any fish on the planet. Their circulatory systems make the cold-blooded fish operate with the power of a warm-blooded animal, and their fins are designed to retract into slots in their bodies, reducing drag and allowing them to travel through the water at speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour.

When bluefin are caught and brought to market, the same muscles that propel these bullet-shaped fish back and forth across the Atlantic are sliced up and routinely sold for upward of $50 per pound. Earlier this year, a single fish sold for $396,000 at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo—$526 per pound.

In short, one of the oceans’ apex predators has become apex prey for sushi connoisseurs. This is particularly shocking when you consider that what is now the world’s premium sushi fish was, as recently as the mid-20th century, primarily rounded up and sold for cat food. (Strangely enough, as recently as 2010, Whiskas was still selling cat food with “natural bluefin tuna flavor.”)

This price inflation begat a dramatic increase in fishing pressure—as one might expect of a fish that has effectively become a swimming lottery ticket—which in turn led to an equally steep decline in the fish’s population. Estimates show bluefin’s numbers have plummeted by as much as 80 percent from the 1970s when data were first collected. And of course it’s worth noting that by all anecdotal accounts, the stock had already declined dramatically by then.

On the domestic front, NOAA has already taken numerous steps to ensure the fish is managed as responsibly as possible. Bluefin would all stay in our exclusive economic zone, within 200 miles of our shores, if they were clever enough to recognize international boundaries and remain where they’re treated best. The U.S. fishery has the strongest conservation requirements in the world, which prevented us from even harvesting our internationally negotiated quota for most of the last decade until we did meet our full allotment in 2009 and 2010.

U.S. fishermen’s inability to catch our quota had nothing to do with their skill or the fish’s scarcity and everything to do with NOAA’s conservation efforts. The agency banned fishermen using longlines—miles-long strings of fishing line set with hundreds of individual hooks—from targeting bluefin in its breeding grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. It also increased minimum size limits to prevent the catch of juvenile fish, reduced trip limits (the amount of legal-sized fish a boat can catch in a day), and most recently, required longliners targeting swordfish and other tunas in the Gulf to use so-called weak hooks designed to straighten and release a fish under the amount of tension a bluefin can create.

So while bluefin is unquestionably overfished, that status is not due to U.S. fishing. Catches in many parts of the world still exceed the limits set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, or ICCAT, the species’ international management body. But NOAA can only control U.S. fisheries, and an endangered finding would have shut down only the domestic fishery. It would have been easy to tout an “endangered” listing as making incremental progress but the reality is not so simple.

Primary among NOAA’s considerations is the law itself, which specifies that to merit a listing of “endangered,” a species must be “endangered with extinction.” NOAA’s analysis clearly showed that despite the well-documented population decline as a result of overfishing, at current catch levels, the western Atlantic stock of bluefin had a zero percent chance of becoming extinct by 2020. And it had a less than 2 percent chance of extinction by 2050. This clearly does not meet the legal threshold for a listing.

But even if it did, the United States only receives about half of the international quota for western Atlantic bluefin—948 of the overall 1,750 metric tons. The rest, along with the 12,500 metric tons ICCAT set as the quota for bluefin in the much more depleted eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea, is caught by countries with far-less-restrictive regulations and far-less-stringent enforcement records.

If the United States had listed bluefin as endangered and shut down its domestic fishery, the other members of ICCAT would have acted faster than the flick of a tuna’s tail to transfer our quota to neighbor countries only too happy to catch it for us. The same number of fish would be killed—or perhaps more given other countries’ lack of enforcement and by-catch documentation.* Meanwhile, our negotiating clout at ICCAT would be dramatically reduced since we would become nonparticipants in the fishery.

Of course it remains to be seen how the 200 million gallons of BP’s oil that flooded the bluefin’s breeding grounds last year will impact the juvenile fish spawned in 2010. We may not know the full effect the oil will have on bluefin for years, if indeed we can ever determine it. In Prince William Sound, the herring population simply vanished three years after the Exxon Valdez spill, and it has yet to return. NOAA must continue studying the impact of oil on bluefin and other Gulf species to ensure we have sufficient data to make reactive management decisions if conditions warrant.

The United States must also maintain its position as a world leader in reducing the fishing pressure on this drastically depleted species. Only implementation and strict enforcement of international catch limits will allow the species to continue the modest rebound that has begun in the last decade in the western Atlantic where the total biomass of bluefin has increased from about 21 percent to 29 percent of the 1970 population level as of 2009. More critical to the species’ survival will be ICCAT’s efforts to slash quotas in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean where quotas are typically 8 to 10 times the levels in the west, and reductions in effort have been far more difficult to achieve.

For years, ICCAT has been resoundingly pilloried for its inability to make tough choices and its propensity to ignore its scientists’ recommendations and bow to political pressure from fishing industry interests. But there is a glimmer of hope. In 2009 ICCAT members agreed to set 2010 catch limits that had at least a 60 percent probability of rebuilding bluefin populations by 2050. That’s not a lofty goal, perhaps, but it’s also not an unreasonable one. In 2010, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the U.S. delegation, the organization honored that commitment.

It’s certainly a small step, but a critical one. In NOAA’s status review of bluefin that determined an endangered listing was not warranted, the agency found current catch limits for eastern bluefin mean that species has a zero percent chance of extinction through 2040 and only a 0.2 percent chance by 2100.

Admittedly, preventing extinction is an extremely low threshold to meet. It is literally the least we can do. So let’s look at this decision as a springboard and turn attention back to the international stage where we can make legitimate strides toward a future for this majestic fish.

*By-catch is the term for fish caught by fishermen targeting other species, which are frequently either thrown back into the ocean dead or landed but not properly documented.

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Michael Conathan is Director of Oceans Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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